Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Malmesbury, Worcestershire

What we see, and when we see it

Standing next to a friend who’s a professional photographer, I know he’s aware of everything that’s going on in front of him – and quite a bit that’s happening behind, too. The wind is blowing this way, which means that in a minute the clouds will part and the sun will shine. It’s worth waiting, even if you're backed into a prickly bush to get the right viewpoint. When it comes, the sun will shine over there, setting this door surround into rich and picturesque shadow while making the paintwork of the door shine beguilingly. There’s a telephone wire over there, so we’ll move a little to the left so that it doesn’t form a distraction in the frame. On the other hand, there’s a woman in a red polka-dot dress up the road: in a minute she’ll walk into shot and her dress will make that green door glow all the more as she passes it. The pulse increases. Sun, shadow, door, dress, all in perfect alignment. The decisive moment. The Leica makes its barely audible click. And on we go to the next shot.

Naturally I try to learn from this example, but it’s slow going. I am still apt to make the beginner’s mistake of concentrating too closely on the main subject, to the exclusion of all else, and ignoring intrusive distractions at the edges of the frame. Of course, back in the studio (formerly the darkroom) even the professional photographer discovers unexpected things lurking in the shadows or on the edges, as the film Blow Up showed.

Not, I’m glad to say, that I’ve ever discovered anything as sinister as the corpse that the David Hemmings character in Blow Up discovers when he starts enlarging his prints. But even so, odd things crop up. One freezing afternoon in Malmesbury, my thoughts frankly on finding a warming cup of coffee or getting back in the car, I couldn’t resist defying the bitter wind and pointing the camera at this Gothic gatehouse, leading into the abbey churchyard. A bit of Georgian semi-gothic, with Y-tracery in the windows but a semicircular archway: a picturesque mishmash, in fact. Very satisfactory. Click. When I got home I saw, in the right-hand side of the frame, on this bone-chilling day, a chap erecting a folding chair. It really is remarkable what you see in photographs.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


More of the black stuff

As a brief follow-up to my post of a butcher’s shop from Ashby de la Zouch, here’s a jeweller’s in Worcester in a similar style. Again black cladding has been combined with these rather classical letters – here surviving in full apart from a pesky detached bracket. There are very effective and no doubt early display units in the window too. And I especially like the black and white striped blind that complements the colour scheme of the shop front.

The whole ensemble – which continues around the corner – creates a facade that is eye-catching, drawing in the window shopper to admire the watches and jewellery on display. Perhaps this attractive and shiny frontage, which must surely be very effective at stopping passers-by and drawing them in, is one reason why the business has survived so long.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire

Hygienic, high-style

As the traffic moved slowly along Ashby’s main street, my eyes raked the side of the road, looking for a parking space, and found one slot with just enough room to get in. And when I parked, straightened the wheel and glanced beyond the cars front and back, I caught a glimpse of shiny black on a shop front.

This is what it turned out to be. A lovely shining example of a black-clad art deco style frontage. I don’t know whether this is 1930s deco or if it dates from just after World War II.* The shiny cladding is probably the black glass called Vitrolite, which was very popular in the 1930s, not just because of its contemporary look but also because it maintained its shine, didn’t craze, and was easy to keep clean. Food retailers especially liked its hygienic qualities and the kind of treatment here – with a narrow frame of stainless steel, a contrasting grey band at ‘skirting board’ level, and a recessed central doorway – is typical of the style, but rare now.
The lettering of the shopkeeper’s name is in that classical-influenced style that one might otherwise associate with neo-Georgian buildings such as Post Offices. I’ve noticed a similar letter form before, above the window of a bookshop-library in Wantage. It looks effective against the black background, but it’s sad that it is starting to come adrift from its moorings. I hope the missing O has not been lost, and that the N can be reattached. Even in its current precarious state, it’s effective and elegant and better than most of the poorly designed plasticky signs seen on High Streets now.

- - -

* I’d be very interested if any reader can tell me the age of this shop front.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Portland Place, London

The essence of place

‘Who,’ people sometimes ask me, ‘is your favourite photographer?’ Maybe Eugène Atget, with his photographs of Paris, hailed as pioneering works of documentary but with an atmospheric stillness that helps them transcend that label. Or Henri Cartier-Bresson with his decisive moments. Or Walker Evans, especially his images of run-down buildings, usually empty of people but full of their former presence. But great as all these are, I keep a special place for British photographer Edwin Smith, whose work I’ve loved for years.

Much of Smith’s work was architectural, and was commissioned to illustrate books on subjects such as parish churches, cottages and farmhouses. Smith’s wife Olive Cook often wrote the text and publishers Thames and Hudson ensured that Smith’s images got the airing they deserved. His work was in other places, too, from Vogue to the Shell Guides. And yet Smith, who worked between the 1930s and 1960s, is not that well known today – his photography seems to have been overshadowed by the contrasting kinds of work (street photography, different modes of documentary) that came along in the 1960s and 1970s. All to the good, then, that the RIBA, who hold Smith’s vast archive (20,000 prints, 60,000 negatives), have put on an exhibition of his photographs.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith looks good in the RIBA’s new architecture gallery at 66, Portland Place. It embraces his early commissioned work (some fashion shots, portraits, wonderful photographs of the circus), but is soon on to the typical stuff, the images of places and buildings that he made from the 1950s onwards, using old large- and medium-format cameras and black and white film. They reveal his obvious virtues and talents – a flair for composition, an eye for detail, a penchant for capturing the way shafts of sunlight illuminate things and make us look anew.

More important, though, is Smith’s genius for showing us the essence of a place. Similar qualities to those that I try to hold up for examination and comment on this blog – the texture of stone and its regional variations, the differing qualities of walls and fences, the lettering on an old Irish shop front, or the regional variations of roofing (slate, stone, tile…) – fascinated Smith. And above all the unregarded details that summon up a place and seem to paint a portrait of it. How typical, for example, that Smith should turn his back on the lovely Georgian box pews in a church like Didmarton and produce a photograph of the transept with its wooden stair. Likewise how moving that he should photograph, as well, no doubt, as the statuary and garden buildings at Rousham, some nettles growing through the slats of a bench – they make a beguiling pattern of leaf and timber.

For Smith, this portrayal of places was the heart of the matter. It was the kind of thing, he felt, that we needed, if we were to save things from the planners. In the 1950s, when Britain was being rebuilt after World War II, such bits of local distinctiveness and traditional craftsmanship were vanishing, fast. A raft of movements and publications, from the Victorian Society to Pevsner’s Buildings of England books, were coming along in the 1950s to put the case for preservation. Smith was there, alongside them, with his bellows cameras. Robert Elwall, author of the excellent book Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith, put it well:

‘The recurring themes of Edwin Smith’s work – a concern for the fragility of the environment, both natural and man-made; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural homogenisation by safeguarding regional diversity; and, above all, a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place – are as pressing today as when Smith first framed them in his elegantly precise compositions.’

That message is tied up, not just with the great compositions, but also with the telling details. Often, these are human traces – washing on a line, farm equipment in a barn, a milk bottle on the table in Furlongs, Peggy Angus’s house in Sussex – traces of people who, apparently, have just walked out of shot. They’re humble traces – ‘Ordinary Beauty’ indeed – but full of significance, and they produce an effect that’s not dissimilar to that in some of Eugène Atget’s Parisian photographs: a generosity, a lost past captured, a haunting presence hinted at, a gentle but revealing light. Atget’s was the one photographic influence Smith would admit to. I can see why.

Top photograph: Edwin Smith, Great Coxwell Barn, Berkshire
Lower photograph: Edwin Smith, Didmarton, Gloucestershire
Note: These images are taken from books. Readers should refer to original prints – in the exhibition and in the RIBA Library – to appreciate the true quality of the work. Smith's photographs are
© Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, from 10 September to 6 December 2014.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

On the wall, on the ball

There are certain small towns that I’ve ofter visited and that, no matter how many times I return, seem to yield further visual interest, and the occasional wonder. Cirencester, Malmesbury, Ludlow, Stroud, are all examples. And there are others, further from my home patch, like Uppingham in Rutland and Louth in Lincolnshire, that I always find rewarding when I get there. Bridgnorth, a characterful hill and valley town with a distinctive townscape overlaying its hilly landscape, is becoming another favourite.

My last visit to Bridgnorth was on the train, and this took me into the town by an unfamiliar route, taking me straight past this cast iron street sign. It was probably the sunshine that made me notice it – the light, producing just the right shadows, was showing off the letters to their best advantage and making them look bright and crisp.

And pretty good letters they are, too. They’re quite well proportioned, there’s plenty of contrast between thick and thin strokes, and they stand out well (helped by the good natural light when I took my photograph) from the background. Maybe a lettering maven would adjust the spacing slightly here and there, but I think they do their job well. The corners of the plate, with their concave curves, are a nice touch too.

I’m always pleased to see these old – often 19th-century – street name signs surviving. They are simply many times better than modern, mass produced signs, fit well into historic settings, and have an elegance of their own. I suppose some councils don’t like them because they need painting periodically, but I’d say that they’re worth the effort. I hope Bridgnorth hangs on to them.